Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Alex Ross, last year, commented on Koyaanisqatsi in the New Yorker. I am a very big fan of Reggio's direction, Ron Fricke's cinematography, and Philip Glass' score. Here is a passage that I rather like:

When I saw “Koyaanisqatsi” in college, I dismissed it as a trippy, slick, MTV-ish thing, to which some well-meaning soul had attached hippie messages about the mechanization of existence and the spoliation of the planet. At Lincoln Center, I understood it as something else altogether—an awesomely dispassionate vision of the human world, beautiful and awful in equal measure. What made the difference, apart from the fact that I was no longer a facile collegiate ironist, was the experience of hearing the music live, with Kurt Munkacsi’s sound design adding heft and definition to every gesture. For all the deliberate coldness of some of Glass’s writing, “Koyaanisqatsi” is deeply expressive; its blistering virtuosity is often the only sign of emotional life on display, excepting a few wan smiles on the faces of pedestrians who hurry through Times Square.

One rarely sees that sort of critical introspection in critics. Of course, that might be why Alex Ross works for the New Yorker, and I write for - oh - about 12 people a day (assuming three constant readers and nine "wrong number" Google hits).

I watched the interview with Reggio before I watched the DVD, yes, I bought it unseen, a major fault of mine. He mentioned that the movie has been viewed as a hymn to technology (perhaps even in those words) or as an environmentalist manifesto. I think he asserted that it was neither. I would agree. It is the apotheosis of documentary filmmaking. It merely (irony heavy here) documents the world and man's place within that wider world. He does ask the fundamental question: has man thrown everything out of balance. It was a dramatic mistake on Reggio's part to include that bit from the "Hopi prophecies":

If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.

Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.

A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.

He had made his case otherwise, and there was no need to say, in essence, "You can't hug a child with nuclear arms." Everything before that moment had left the viewer to decide if technology was becoming too powerful, if man had thrown everything - including his own existence - out of order and balance. The evidence pointed both ways; then that ham-fisted give-peace-a-chance snippet.

In this Salon.com article about Naqoyqatsi, which I haven't seen, Reggio notes, "The purpose of tragedy is not to depress; it's to purge, to rebel against our destiny." Well, having some small knowledge in the matter of drama, at least the classical drama of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, I can say that he's half-right. The point is indeed catharsis. However, the point is not to rebel against destiny - time and time again, we see (cf. Oedipus Tyrannis) that you cannot escape your fate. It was a dramatic error, on Reggio's terms, to explain how and why we're rebelling against fate.

Glass' score works beautifully and really does complement the music. However, by 2006, we've all heard "Philip Glass music" to the point where it isn't that revolutionary. When all is said and done, though, Glass did something more impressive than set nature scenes to the Prelude from BWV 1007; he made the music part of the movie. Only (aside from Reggio, who made an effort) Stanley Kubrick could do that.


At 12:13 PM, Blogger Karl said...

. . . no longer a facile collegiate ironist

What comment needed?

Very interesting entry, Patrick. I haven't seen the movie, and your considered reflection here makes me interested to see it.


At 7:43 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

As I said, Reggio made a really egregious dramatic error at the very end, which sort of ruins it for me. However, excepting the last two or three minutes, it is a powerful film.

Assuredly, one best seen as a "facile collegiate ironist," but still, it works on enough levels to have broad appeal.

At 11:16 AM, Blogger Karl said...

As I said, Reggio made a really egregious dramatic error at the very end, which sort of ruins it for me. However, excepting the last two or three minutes, it is a powerful film.

I did mark that, and of course, muffing the end mars the whole work, doesn't it? Beginnings and endings can be the toughest to write, since they are so crucial as a frame for all that flows between.


At 6:21 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

To my mind, the ending does sort of put a black mark on the whole work. It is so out-of-character compared to the rest, and - frankly - preachy, that it leaves a bad taste in my mouth; however, YMMV.


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